Mile Jedinak’s penalty kick spared hosts Australia blushes as they fought back to a 1-1 draw against rivals Japan in a tense 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium.
Over 48,000 fans packed the venue in anticipation of the first meaningful encounter between two of Asia’s top sides in over two years, with the Socceroos coming off of two straight road games and Japan having recently escaped with a narrow 2-1 win over Iraq at home.
The Samurai Blue jumped out to a surprising lead just five minutes into the match when Keisuke Honda’s picture-perfect through pass found Genki Haraguchi, who easily beat goalkeeper Maty Ryan in a one-on-one encounter. Australia appeared flustered by the the early goal, struggling to pressure consistently before the half hour mark as Japan’s defense, backed by several key saves from goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, held their ground.
The reigning Asian champions began to find their groove early in the second half, and they were rewarded for their efforts when Tomi Juric was blatantly fouled by Haraguchi in the area to earn a penalty kick. Jedinak’s aim in the 53rd minute was true, and Japan were on the back foot for most of the remaining 40 minutes save for a terrific Ryan stop against Honda and some late chances created by substitute Takuma Asano.
As Australia hoped that “Japan Killer” Tim Cahill would give the Socceroos a dramatic victory in 20 minutes of relief work, Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic held his substitutions close to the chest, only reluctantly sending in Hiroshi Kiyotake for an injured Yu Kobayashi in the 81st minute with Asano relieving Honda soon after and Yuichi Maruyama making his senior debut in stoppage time.
The honours-even final marked the third straight 1-1 draw between the two sides in FIFA World Cup qualifying; Australia were the last team to win in regulation, triumphing 2-1 in a June 2009 dead rubber after both countries had clinched qualification to South Africa.
The result moved Australia to first in Group B with eight points and Japan to second with seven, as Saudi Arabia prepared to host UAE later on Tuesday night.